Take Me Back to Kanuhura

Let’s set the stage:

You’re flying over a lagoon with countless shades of cerulean and turquoise, dotted only by a few small islands. The islands are so small that from this height, they almost don’t even look like islands– just ribbons of electric blue paint on the dark blue canvas of the Indian ocean. The earplugs in your ears muffle but don’t drown out the rhythmic thrum of the propeller plane outside your window. You’re seated so close to the pilots you can practically smell their aftershave.

For the first time in your life, you actually don’t ever want this plane ride to end.

But, as with all good things, it’s over quickly, a mere 30 minutes after departing Male’s seaplane airport. The barefoot pilots kick their sandals back on as they begin fiddling with the controls and preparing for landing. The color of the water changes dramatically as you get closer and closer to the surface. Finally, with a controlled skid of a landing on the turquoise water, you’ve arrived at your island home paradise for the next few days.

A smiling staff is waving, alluring fresh coconuts adorned with purple-specked orchids cradled in their arms for your arrival.

…. Raise your hand if you could use a tropical vacation right about now.

***

The Kanuhura Experience:

Let’s backtrack a bit here: how did I, a former New York City public school teacher, end up at one of the Maldives’ top 5 star resorts?

I was invited to speak on the subject of storytelling and authenticity in destination marketing at the inaugural World Travel Writers’ Conference. Naturally, I extended my stay so that I could explore a bit more of the Maldives after the conference. I stayed at four resorts during my two weeks in the Maldives, all lovely in their own right, and each perfect for a different kind of traveler: one for the budget-conscious, another for the trendy and nightlife-centric, another for surfers.

Yet of all the places I stayed, I can definitely say hands-down that Kanuhura is the most luxurious and boutique-feeling option. With a small size of only 80 villas (other places I stayed numbered well into the hundreds), the attention to detail in Kanuhura is unmatched.

In addition the beautiful rooms, our villa came with a private plunge pool just a few minutes walk from the white sand beach. On the beach, we had two private lounge chairs and umbrella, also just steps from our villa.

This was one of the best locations on the island because we had sunset views every single night. This being the Maldives, there are — of course — overwater bungalows as well, which face the sunrise. But I quite loved our little private pool facing the beach, particularly because of those fiery Maldives sunset shows.

staying at Kanuhura

All the villas are all attended by a personal villa host and cleaned twice a day. At first, this seemed excessive, but I grew to greatly appreciate how there was never any sand in the villa — one of my biggest pet peeves about being in beachy locations. Oh, and the nightly dessert treats definitely didn’t hurt 😉

What I loved most about Kanuhura was how it provides luxury without pretense. Ultra-luxury can make me a bit uncomfortable — afraid I’m going to break something or do something uncouth (both very probable). But Kanuhura is laidback; its mission to is balance the carefree spirit of bohemians and the understated sophistication of the jet set. They have an official “no news, no shoes” policy — going barefoot everywhere along the island is encouraged — even to dinner.

They offer a balance of luxe and adventure, from a range of holistic and ayurvedic treatment options in their spa as well as a variety of land- and water-based adventure activities.

Let me say that while I don’t typically live an exceptionally luxurious lifestyle, I am an absolute fiend for massages and no matter what my financial situation is, I always schedule at least one monthly massage. I’ve gotten massages all around the world — in probably well over 20 countries at this point — and I can say that hands down, the massage I had at Kanuhura’s spa was the best of my life.

If you’re more into adventure than massages and spa treatments, Kanuhura’s still got your back. Snorkle in the vibrant house reef or take a boat dive with their on-island dive school. The more adventurous amongst us can even try jet skiing, wakeboarding, or windsurfing. I prefer what I’ve deemed “soft adventure,” so I stuck to exploring their pristine house reef and doing sunrise yoga.

The pain of waking up early for sunrise yoga was quickly fixed by an amazing in-villa breakfast (or should I say in-pool breakfast?) complete with champagne and tropical fruit because hey, you only live once.

The food at Kanuhura is a whole different level as well — easily my favorite of all the 4 resorts I stayed at. The breakfast selection was insane: I literally had sushi for breakfast every day, complete with miso soup, fresh fruit, and of course — mimosas!

There are 8 restaurants, ranging from Asian fusion (we had some delicious curries and sushi there), to amazing Italian pastas, to fresh fish, to more casual salads, sandwiches, and juices.

My favorite of all the restaurants was probably Drift, their deserted island restaurant — the tuna shown above was ordered there.

When Yulia and I went, we were literally the only two people dining on the island — and with the chefs and waiters, there couldn’t have been more than 6 people on the entire island! It’s easy to get there — just a short 5 minute boat ride from the main island of Kanuhura — but it feels a world away.

I’d be remiss not to mention all the amazing places to relax and lounge around the island. While you could very easily and very happily shut yourself in the privacy of your own pool or overwater villa — there are so many wonderful places to get some sun, swim, or socialize with a drink all around the island.

The main pool has a swim-up bar — of course! — with some delicious and insanely creative cocktails made with herbs from Kanuhura’s very own garden. And of course, the pool has an ocean view as well.

The sunset bar area is also fantastic and definitely worth mentioning. There are countless areas to lounge and relax here and the aesthetic is simply gorgeous.

One of my favorite and most unique touches about this bar area is that you can organize a “make-your-own-mojito” station in one of the little teepee-style covers. A bartender will come and show you how to make all different sorts of flavored mojitos — we tried the standard mint, pineapple, and passionfruit — before allowing you to strike out on your own.

In the spirit of full disclosure, we were both pretty awful at making our own mojitos — the ones our bartender made us were far, far better! But it was fun to make it ourselves nonetheless, and I’m sure that people who go a little less rum-crazy than we did would have a much better shot at making their own mojitos.

For parents who are traveling with kids, they’ll be happy to note that Kanuhura has a kids club on the island, so there’s plenty of fun to be had by little kids and adults alike.

A Note on Sustainability:

As with many hotels in the Maldives, Kanuhura is taking drastic steps to decrease their carbon footprint. In particular, they are doing an excellent job at reducing plastic usage across the board. I can’t recall seeing a single piece of plastic during my stay.

The straws are all made of sturdy paper — a major improvement over plastic straws, which often end up stuck in sea turtle noses and inside fish and shark stomachs. They’ve also completely eliminated plastic water bottles by having an on-site water desalination and purification plant on site. They’re also making an effort to reduce reliance on cargo ships bringing in produce from overseas by growing their own herbs and some fruits in their on-site Chef’s Garden.

They’re also doing great work to reduce pollution and ensure the health of their in-house reef. I saw many beautiful and healthy fish during our snorkel around the reef, which I feel is testament to the work Kanuhura is putting into keeping these reefs pristine for future generations of guests to enjoy.

Cost:

Offering 5* luxury in the Maldives, Kanuhura does not come cheap — nor is it as expensive as its some of its fellow 5* neighbors. Doing a quick search, I was able to find prices in March as low as $865 per night, half board (breakfast & dinner) and June for as little as $661 per night (room only). While this isn’t cheap, it offers a great value compared to other 5* resorts in the area. I recommend booking directly through their website as that’s where I found the best prices. Keep in mind this does not include the return seaplane transfer, which costs an additional $550 per person.

Their peak season is Christmas, so don’t expect to find any reasonable prices in this time period, when rooms soar up to $1700 per night!

I’d recommend traveling in the shoulder season. I spent two weeks in the Maldives in mid-September, which is technically the rainy season (it runs from May to November). However, it barely rained at all during my 2 week stay. Most of that is luck, but in general, the rainy season in the Maldives is incredibly unpredictable — now moreso than ever due to climate change. You can have storms for days — or you can have perfectly blue skies nearly all day with an occasional shower for a few minutes.

It’s a risk to take (and Kanuhura plans for rainy day contingencies with a lot of indoor activities) but if you are dreaming of a 5* Maldives experience — there’s no better time to get a good deal.

Are you planning a Maldives trip? Let me know in the comments!

Note: I was a guest of Kanuhura and the World Travel Writers’ Conference during my time in the Maldives. All experiences and opinions are entirely my own.

6 Stunning Places to Visit in Bali

Spectacular beaches, world-class massages, mesmerizing landscapes, outrageously delicious food… Bali is absolutely stunning. I’m writing this from a beautiful villa in Canggu, feeling safe as can be. But because of the rumblings of an angsty volcano, the tourism-driven island economy is suffering. People working in hospitality are losing their jobs left and right, and businesses are being forced to shutter. 

The reality is that while Mount Agung is active, there’s no telling when the eruption will be: it could be today, a few weeks later, or even a year from now — or it could die down completely. Stay away from the 12-kilometer exclusion zone (easy to do, as Bali is a massive island) and you’re in no danger.

So if you’re hedging on coming to Bali, let me assure you: now is a great time to visit. Your dollars will make a huge difference to an economy devastated by the decrease of tourism, and you’ll be rewarded with the least crowded Bali has been and will be for years to come. If you’re not yet convinced, here are 6 absolutely magic places to stay in Bali that are perfectly safe to visit now, volcano or not!

Live the high life in Seminyak

Seminyak is one of the great places to stay in Bali

Seminyak is one of Bali’s top luxury destinations, where the best beachfront hotels in Bali dot the shoreline and fine restaurants and boutiques line the neighboring streets. The Legian Bali is one of a handful of five-star resorts in Seminyak with an exclusive spa and lush tropical gardens, while premium dining and entertainment venues such as Ku De Ta and the Potato Head Beach Club are popular hangouts for dinner and cocktails when the sun goes down.

Besides the luxe hotels, Seminyak is also known for being the epicenter of Bali fashion, with tons of trendy and one-of-a-kind boutiques to be found. Auguste the Label and Paulina Katerina are two favorites, but there are countless more boutiques to be found in Seminyak.

Relax and unwind in spiritual Ubud

Ubud, another great place to stay in Bali

One of the main stops for travelers backpacking in Bali, Ubud is one of Bali’s most beautiful cities and the cultural heart of the island, and most people spend at least a few days in Ubud.

The sense of a home away from home can be credited to the people – the Balinese are some of the friendliest people on the planet.

Bali has become known as a yoga and wellness destination, and nowhere is that clearer than in Ubud, a hippie little city about an hour inland. Here, you can take all the yoga classes you like, cycle through the rice paddies, dine in delicious cafés, enjoy the Campuhan ridge walk, or visit temples and markets.

Ubud is renowned as the cultural haven of Bali and the place to discover art galleries, museums, dance and traditional Indonesian crafts. There’s the excellent Seniwati Gallery, which exhibits female artists, plus the Neka Museum, which showcases artworks by Balinese and international artists.

Even the drive to Ubud is a treat: tranquil terraced rice paddies sit side by side with ancient Hindu temples offering a window into the real Bali.

Even better, Ubud is a great hub for chasing some of Bali’s best waterfalls.

Visit the real “Wild Bali” in northern Lovina

The north of the island is Wild Bali and an area that’s well off the familiar tourist trail.

But if walking in lush paddy fields, strolling on peaceful black sandy beaches, trekking to waterfalls, dolphin watching, snorkelling and authentic travel are of interest, it’s well worth a journey.

The best way to experience the quieter areas of the island is to book a private local guide or driver who can tailor the trip to your tastes.

Normally, I’d recommend the area around Amed, but even though it’s outside the exclusion zone it’s still a bit close to Mount Agung for comfort. Instead, try the area around Lovina – it’s stunning and famous for its wild dolphins.

Snorkel or dive in crystal-clear waters near Sanur

While the south of Bali is blessed with world-class surf breaks for which the island is so famed, there are also several beaches with calmer waters to the north, east and west that are ripe for snorkeling and diving.

Nusa Penida, Pemuteran Bay, and Nusa Lembongan are fantastic areas of coastline and surrounding islands to snorkel, with warm turquoise waters inviting you in to explore coral gardens, coves, and tropical habitats packed with rare marine life. 

Sanur is a great base when traveling to these spots and has a handful of local dive shops which can arrange snorkeling or diving tours by boat, plus it’s home to some of the most delicious restaurants in Bali.

Get your surf on in Uluwatu

Surfers from around the world congregate in Uluwatu’s beaches, which are considered the #4 surf destination in the world.

It’s a great place to get lessons or even check out a surf camp or retreat.

If you’re not much of a surfer, Uluwatu is also home to plenty of stunning hotels with infinity pools looking out to over the ocean and countless bars serving up delicious cocktails.

Hang out in hip Canggu

Canggu is kind of like the Brooklyn of Bali — filled with yoga studios, delicious cafés serving organic and vegetarian-friendly options, and some of the best coffees I’ve ever had.

But even for all its cafés, tattoo shops, and beach bars, Canggu is still decidedly rural. Rice paddies dot the streets in between the main avenues with all their shops, studios, and restaurants. This is where you’ll find most of the hostels in Bali so you’ll be surrounded with plenty of fellow travelers.

Canggu is also a great surfer destination, with waves not nearly as intense as in nearby Uluwatu. And, bonus, Canggu is home to the stunning Tanah Lot temple, which is one of the most beautiful temples in all of Bali.

5 Traditional and Unique Shows in Tokyo for Your Bucket List

Tokyo is a city of theatrics and personality.

Neon lights illuminate the streets by night and waves of people animate the streets by day, expressing themselves through crazy and quirky fashion.

Tokyo is insanely photogenic and you’ll be endlessly surprised by the different sights and sounds of Japan.

No matter how modern they are, the Japanese are still deeply wedded to tradition, and they enjoy sharing their ancient traditions with today’s visitors. See ancient arts such as sumo or kabuki — or go full 21st century with the chaotic and famous Robot Restaurant. 

If you want to see a show in Tokyo, you’re spoiled for choice! No matter how much time you have in Japan’s capital — whether you have 48 hours in Tokyo or 2 weeks in Japan — make it a priority to see one of these shows. 

Top 5 Unique Shows in Tokyo to Experience

Sumo

Image source Flickr

Japan is virtually synonymous with its most famous sport: sumo wrestling. This ancient sport dates back centuries to a time where it was recognized as nothing more than a form of entertainment for the deities.

Yet these days, it’s iconic and internationally known, and to this day it still has a dedicated following across the country. Sumo might seem like just a shoving match, but that’s far from the case — it is incredibly regimented. Wrestlers train their entire lives to make it professionally, living and dining in communal living spaces called “stables” where they undergo a rigorous training schedule.

Attending a sumo match in Tokyo is high up on the lists of visitors who are looking for an eye-opening cultural experience, vicarious adrenaline, and a wild atmosphere. There are three tournaments held in Tokyo annually at the city’s 13,000-capacity stadium, Ryogoku Kokugikan, each showcasing the sport’s finest athletes at the top of their game. However, if you aren’t there during one of the three annual tournaments, don’t fret: visitors can take a tour to see a real sumo practice and see the authentic sumo stables where the men live, work, and train each day of their lives.

Kabuki

There are few traditions that have withstood the test of time and emerged into the 21st century unscathed – in cities as modern as Tokyo no less. But Japan is different, finding a way to allow the ultra-modern and the traditional to coexist.

Kabuki is just one of the many ancient Japanese traditions from the 17th century that are still practiced in Tokyo today.  Kabuki is a form of opera involving elaborate dress and insanely embellished stages. Epic stories are told over the course of several hours.

The stage design is what really steals the show — it’s what kabuki is most well-known for. A long runway extends into the audience to provide them an up-close and emotional performance.

Tokyo houses some of the finest kabuki theatres in the country and many provide headsets with English translations to help you enjoy the show. As performances last an entire afternoon, there’s the option to buy tickets for individual segments on the day, so always plan ahead to see what’s scheduled. It’s fanciful. It’s opulent. Kabuki is as traditional as it gets in modern day Tokyo. 

Check out these things to do in Ginza after watching a kabuki show.

Robot Restaurant

Image source: Flickr

No trip to Tokyo would be complete with experiencing the city’s most far-fetched, animated, and confusing performance there is: the Robot Restaurant. Forget the notion that this is somewhere you come to dine — the chaotic robots and neon lights steal the show.

Those who dine in this robotic fantasy land can expect nothing short of organized chaos from start to finish: erratic lasers, smoke, glitter, and lights all featuring heavily throughout the evening’s performance.

The story is basically centered around an epic robot battle, featuring synchronized musicians and robot-riding women, and crescendos in unapologetic chaos that leaves diners in awe. It’s loud and obnoxious, and everything you’d expect from Tokyo. Hailed as one of the best restaurants in Tokyo in which to enjoy an evening’s entertainment.

Tables fill up fast here, so be sure book a seat in advance!

Geisha Show

shows in Japan - a geisha show!

While Kyoto is the beating heart of Japan’s still-thriving geisha scene, if you’re keen to see a geisha show then Tokyo can certainly deliver.

Broadway ain’t got nothing on Japan’s version of dinner and a show. Enjoy one of Japan’s most sought-after foods, kobe beef, which can sell for over $100 per pound, all while watching some of its most iconic performers. Geisha dancing style is highly ritualized and formal, steeped in tradition. The kimonos they wear as they perform could very well be art pieces in and of themselves.

This certainly isn’t a cheap activity, but for those who want a premium cultural experience on their trip to Tokyo, it can’t be missed. Again, seats are limited and demand is high, so be sure to book in advance if you’d like to go.

Samurai Show

Another one of Japan’s most iconic cultural legacies to reach international fame is the samurai. While Japan has obviously modernized away from samurai culture, Japanese love for tradition has ensured that the practice’s legacy lives on. You can also see samurai shows in Kyoto, as well.

Kenbu tachibana ittoryu is a performance style that’s been around more than 80 years, and you can see it in action – and fight with your own ‘swords’ in Japanese costume – with samurai experience suitable for all. Check availability here.  Those more interested in the art of katana (Japan’s traditional curved swords, which are works of art all on their own) can take a lesson with a 7th-level swordmaster who is a descendant of actual samurais! See if there are spots left here.

Have you seen any shows in Japan that should be added to this list?

Note: This post contains affiliate links. That means that if you purchase something using one of these links, I will receive a small commission at no added cost to you.

Bandos Island Resort: A Surprisingly Eco & Affordable Maldives Paradise

I used to think that the Maldives were as expensively inaccessible as they were undeniably beautiful. In my mind, it was reserved for a honeymoon: something that made this marriage-skeptical commitment-phobe itch to think of.

After becoming a travel blogger, my eyes were opened to the expansive world of budget travel in the Maldives: local islands, public ferries, locally-owned guesthouses on Airbnb.

But what I never realized until I actually arrived in Maldives was that there was something in the middle: a way to enjoy a traditional resort experience without spending your entire life’s savings.

Something that couldn’t quite be classified as “budget” – but that you wouldn’t have to steal from your theoretical future child’s college education fund to afford.

That place, my friends, is Bandos Island Resort, a mere 10-minute speedboat from Malé Airport but with some of the bluest waters and whitest sands you can dream up.

While I was a guest at Bandos Island Resort thanks to the sponsorship of the World Travel Writers Conference in the Maldives, I was shocked to learn how affordable this resort is for the average middle-class traveler, especially if you travel off-peak.

Cost of Staying at Bandos Island Resort

Even in February, one of the busiest months, the cheapest double room is about $280 per night (with breakfast only included). But travel off-peak in a month like June or July, and you’ll be rewarded: that same double room is only $172 with breakfast ($337 full-board for two people).

** Note: I looked up these rates on booking.com while writing this article — prices will likely change, but were true at time of writing. Also note that these prices are not inclusive of the 22% tax that is mandatory on all stays and purchases in Maldives **

Now, I’m not trying to say that these prices are budget-friendly for everyone, but let’s put these numbers into perspective. I’ve seen average motels in Moab, Utah go for well over $200 a night. You’d be hard-pressed to find a decent hotel room in central NYC or London for under $300. Now, I love me a good city, but I’d take a week in Maldives over a week in gray London anyday!

Just look at those island blues.

Be aware: the rainy season in the Maldives is technically from May to October. I went in September, was there for two weeks, and never had more than 10 minutes of rain spread over a few different days.

However, I was told that right before my arrival, there had been several days of super stormy weather — so be prepared if you choose to travel in the off-season!

Bandos’ proximity to the Malé airport is part of what makes it so affordable. If you add in a seaplane, no matter how affordable the resort is, you’re looking at an extra $500 or so on top of your stay… Ouch. So if you want a budget-friendly trip to Maldives, make sure you look at hotels that are within a speedboat transfer’s distance of Malé and be sure to ask about the transfer cost before booking anything.

At the moment, Bandos charges $76 return for a speedboat transfer per adult, which is rather reasonable (in the alternate universe that is the Maldives!)

Cost of Activities at Bandos Island Resort

One of the other things that makes Bandos so affordable for a Maldives resort is the relatively low cost of activities. A half day snorkeling or island hopping trip will cost $45 plus tax.

A sunset dolphin cruise, like the one in the photo below, will cost about $40 (plus tax) for a several hour long boat ride.

They also have a fantastic dive center on Bandos – I went diving with them three times and saw so many amazing creatures in their house reef (you can also borrow a snorkel set and snorkel right from the beach, if that’s more your speed)

The boat dives were even better, though! We went to Aquarium, where you can see massive schools of brightly colored fish plus beautiful corals, anemones, and others. But one of the highlights was our second dive, where we went diving with enormous manta rays swirling above and below us. I was shocked when one went right above me and I could see through its gills to the water above it.

Dives cost $62 plus tax per dive with all the equipment included, plus a $18 supplement if you choose to do a boat dive. If you’re a diving fanatic, you can even buy a package of 10 dives for $500, making them $50 each — a good value if you can fit them all in!

Sustainability at Bandos Island Resort

You may think there’s no way a resort in the Maldives can be eco-friendly… but Bandos is doing its best with some innovative and sustainable initiatives.

The #1 thing Bandos is doing to combat waste is through their bottling plant, which is located on-island and was established in 2015. Reusable glass bottles are pressure-washed, sanitized, and rinsed before being filled with purified, filtered water. Since the average daily consumption of bottled water is 800 liters, the water bottling plant is able to save the disposal of over 288,000 plastic bottles per year.

Other initiatives to reduce waste include a Solarhart system to heat water, which reduces the energy needed to heat water by 80-90%. They’re also in the process of constructing an entirely on-island sewage treatment plant that produces clean reusable water with low energy outputs.

A hydroponic garden fed by recycled water reduces reliance on imported produce (a huge resource suck in an isolated island nation like Maldives).

They’ve also signed the Biosphere Reserve Pledge with UNESCO as of 2016, agreeing to reserve 800 square meters of the Bandos House Reef — which is one of the healthiest house reefs I’ve ever seen, remarkable given its proximity to Malé. They’ve initiated several coral gardening programs that naturally rehabilitate damaged but live coral.

So, if you think Maldives is out of your budget — think again. One week at a Maldives resort could actually end up costing you less than a week in Paris, London, or NYC.

Intrigued? Check the most recent and lowest prices on Booking.com now!

Think resorts in the Maldives are too expensive? You might be surprised at what they actually cost!

Note: I was a guest of Bandos Island Resort while I attended the World Travel Writer’s Conferences sponsored by Maldives TV. All opinions expressed are entirely my own. Also, this post contains affiliate links, which may make me a small commission at no extra cost to you.

7 Things That Surprised Me About the Maldives

When I got the email inviting me to come to the Maldives for a conference, I pinched myself, wondered wildly if it was all some prank from a disgruntled blogger I accidentally threw shade at, and refreshed my email again and again to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.

Then I promptly went out and bought the brightest bikini I could find, because retail therapy is for good things too, no?

I spent two weeks in the Maldives… and I still can’t even believe I just wrote that sentence. The Maldives has always seemed so inaccessible to little old me: too far, too expensive, too romantic. It was a place I always thought I’d save for later — a place I wasn’t yet ready for, that I’d go to when I was rich, successful, and in a fabulous relationship.

Well, one half out of 3 isn’t bad.

As I spent more and more time in the Maldives, I began to understand a bit more of what makes this island nation so unique and surprising.

While you may think of just perfectly manicured rows of bungalows, as always, there’s more to the story. Two weeks visiting just 5 islands in a chain of over 1200 isn’t much, but bit by bit I began to chip away at the postcard image of the Maldives to discover some surprising things about this ocean paradise.

1. The huge difference between local islands and resort islands

The islands of the Maldives can be split into two distinct categories: resort islands and local islands. When you think of Maldives, it’s far more likely that you’re imagining resort islands: overwater bungalows, fancy cocktails, and that brilliant aquamarine water — only the last of which you’ll find on the local islands.

The view from a local island, Huraa

I’ll readily admit I didn’t spend much time on the local islands — the idea of going weeks without alcohol is nearly enough to induce the shakes (oops did I actually admit that?! sorry, Mom and Dad and everyone you tell to read this blog) — but next time, I’m planning on exploring more of the local side of life, booze be damned.

I did a day trip to Huraa, a local island near Male, and found the waters to be super beautiful with colorful houses everywhere — it’s definitely tempting to come back and visit properly in the future, and since Airbnbs start around $40 per night for a guesthouse… it won’t break the budget, either.

Suprising Maldives facts

The difference between local islands vs. resort islands is so noticeable because the Maldives is a strictly Muslim nation — except when it comes to privately owned islands, aka the resorts. On local islands and in the capital, there isn’t freedom of religion; pork products and alcohol are banned; women dress quite conservatively.

Meanwhile, in Maldives resorts, you’ll often find non-halal food, plenty of alcohol, and bikini bottoms so small they’ve nearly been absorbed by the person’s buttcrack (no disrespect, I wish I could rock that look).

If you’re traveling only to the resort islands, this won’t matter much. If you plan to spend any time on the local islands, it’s best to keep this in mind so you can respect the culture and not be caught off-guard.

2. The resorts aren’t just for honeymooners

I always kind of thought that the Maldives was a honeymoooners’ destination and not much else — that if you weren’t taking romantic jacuzzis or rocking the bed with your fellow newlywed, you’d be shit out of luck for things to do in the Maldives.

Well, this is so not the case — and thank god for my forever-single ass, because to think that I’d have to wait for Prince Charming to swim in those blue blue waters is low-key heartbreaking.

Sure, the people surrounding me were predominantly couples, but very few in-your-face newlyweds. More common were small families and groups of friends, meaning that I didn’t feel out of place during my time visiting different resorts in the Maldives.

3. The Maldives is doing its best to be sustainable, but it’s unclear if it’ll be enough

According to some estimates, the Maldives will either lose 77% to nearly all of their land by the end of the century. The Maldives is the flattest nation on Earth — its highest point is not even 3 meters above sea level — with 80% of its land lying a meter below sea level. As such, it’s especially susceptible to global warming and rising sea levels.

Despite this, Maldivians have their eyes locked on a hopeful future. New resorts are springing up; plans to expand the airport and encourage industry on these islands are in the works. For being the flattest nation in the world and 99% water, Maldivians don’t seem particularly worried about the rising sea levels — or if they are, they’re doing a good job faking it.

That said, many of the resorts are doing a lot to be sustainable. Two of the four resorts I stayed at (Bandos and Kanuhura) have water bottling or desalination plants right on island, drastically reducing their use of plastics by providing drinkable water in reusable glass bottles instead. Virtually all Maldives resorts have their own waste management and water treatment facilities on island.

As admirable as these steps are, though, these are small steps undertaken by a population of 400,000. No matter what Maldivians do to be more sustainable, the continued existence of the Maldives is contingent upon slowing the rising sea levels. That means their future is essentially in the hands of much more populous and wasteful nations such as the United States, India, and China, which is why we must continue to agitate for change, sustainability, and science in our home communities.

4. The Maldives has its own language and writing system

If you’ve ever had the dubious pleasure of talking to me for more than 10 minutes, I’ve probably managed to drop in a reference to the fact that I’ve learned more than one language. Yes, I know, I’m just that charming.

The Maldivians speak a language called Dhivehi, which is related most closely to Sinhalese, the language of Sri Lanka — which makes sense from a geographic perspective.

Dhivehi is written in a unique script found nowhere else on Earth. The script is called Thaana, and it’s written from right to left, similar to Arabic. Some of the letters derive from Arabic numerals; others from other numeral systems. Cool, right? Just me? All right, let’s move along here…

5. The water really is that blue

Honestly, a photographer never has an easier day than a sunny day in the Maldives. It’s almost criminal to post-process those photos.

Counter to everything you’ve been taught about photography, the trick to good photography in Maldives is simple. Shoot in daylight, best between 10 am and 2 pm. No need for golden hour here: the water looks its best with the sun directly above it. And for god’s sake, keep your hands off the saturation slider. There’s no need.

6. It isn’t exclusively for the rich

Maldives will never be a “budget destination” in the way that Thailand and Indonesia are. Dorm beds don’t exist, but guesthouses on the local islands start from as little as $30 or $40 a night for a double room. Meaning that if you travel with a friend, a shared room in paradise will only cost you about as much as a dorm bed in many parts of Western Europe. In fact, it can be done on a budget of about $60 per day. Crazy, right?

Ferries to the local islands cost from $2-3 from Malé, the capital. Once you’re on a local island, prices are fairly standard — think $1 for a coke or bottle of water, and anywhere from $5-10 for a meal.

Activities such as diving in the Maldives can cost a bit more, but are still fairly affordable. My friend Janet did a fantastic breakdown of Maldives trip costs on all kinds of budgets, so check her post out for further details.

7. Maldivian food is delicious

I didn’t know what to expect when it came to Maldivian food… oh, was I in for a treat.

Warning – if you’re not into seafood or spicy food, take a seat in the back. This one isn’t for you… so step aside so I can have unimpeded access to the buffet, thanks.

Maldivian food is influenced by Sri Lankan and Indian cuisine – as in, lots of curries and spices. The Indian flatbread roti is called roshi here, and it’s eaten with most meals, especially breakfast. Maashuni is another typical Maldivian breakfast food: flaked tuna with shredded coconut, onion, and chilis. Fish for breakfast? Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.

If you’re not into spicy food or fish, most resorts will have some mild and Western options for you. But if you have an adventurous palate, you’ll fall in love with the flavors of the Maldives.

Note: My trip to the Maldives was sponsored by the World Travel Writers’ Conference and Maldives TV. All opinions are my own. 

Aboard the Yangon Circular Train, A Quirky Cultural Experience

yangon myanmar

When you think train travel, you probably think of looking out the window at greenery rolls by. Relaxation, quiet, each person in their own meditation.

Not so in Myanmar. As the Yangon circular train chugged along at a jogger’s pace through the lush countryside surrounding the chaotic capital city, first I found myself staring out the window.

I frantically snapped photos of modest homes, people playing sports outside, grassy fields. But as we drifted further away from the center, picking up more people, a rollicking show began to play before my eyes, stealing my attention.

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Cycling in Bali: Rice Terraces, Volcanos, and Weasel Poop

Let me preface this by saying: I am usually so not a tour person. That said, I took an eco cycling tour in Bali and it was one of my favorite experiences of my whole 7 weeks backpacking in Southeast Asia. Despite my weariness of tours and all things organized, cycling in Bali was a wonderful experience, and I recommend everyone experience it for themselves!

The tour company picked my group of 3 up from our hotel, Ubud Ganesha Inn, which at $15 per person for a three bed capacity room was a steal. After loading up in the van at an ungodly early hour, we headed up north away from Ubud. After I jolted awake from my nap (I can sleep basically anywhere, so long as it’s moving), I was shocked by the beautiful scenery. Lush greenery and mountains everywhere: just a taste of what I’d continue to experience for the rest of the day. As we had a long day of cycling in Bali ahead of us, we started with a buffet breakfast at a hotel overlooking Mount Batur, one of the tallest volcanoes in Bali.

cycling in bali bike tour
Why yes, I do love it here!

After gorging myself on the closest thing to a Western-style breakfast that I’d had in weeks, I was full, content, and not wanting to move — i.e., not the ideal state of being for someone who’s about to bike 25 km. Luckily, a digestive break was planned: the “eco” part of our “eco cycling tour.”

We went to a coffee plantation, where we tasted a few different coffees and were told of the “luwak” coffee — more famously known as “weasel poop coffee.” Basically, they make weasels eat coffee beans, collect their poop, and turn it into coffee. Yum? But, as someone who suffers from serious FOMO, I coughed up the 5 extra bucks to try the weasel poop coffee. I wish I could wax poetic about how disgusting or revelatory it was, but it was… just coffee.

In all honesty, though, I don’t recommend you consume the luwak coffee – after doing my research, I find it really unethical in a way I had never considered prior to my tour. I guess I imagined them roaming free, eating coffee beans to their heart’s content (while someone picked up after them, I guess). But once I finished my coffee and toured the plantation, I felt rather guilty. The weasels simply are not kept in good conditions. Their enclosures, while large, had concrete floors and no real stimuli for the weasels to play with. It made me a bit depressed, and honestly, had I seen the cages beforehand I never would have paid for the coffee. I recommend researching any tour that includes a coffee tour in Bali and opting out of the kopi luwak experience.

After our weasel poop amuse-bouche, it was time for the cycling part of the cycling in Bali tour.

cycling in bali bike tour in ubud
My badass partner in crime

After a quick primer on how to use the brakes (which would come much in handy, considering we biked in a single-file line downhill, with frequent stops), we were off! The tour was billed as a “downhill cycling tour” and that was pretty accurate.  I don’t think I put my feet on the pedals once — until the end, when I and my friends opted for the optional uphill portion.

We biked through a beautiful remote village, where we got to explore a traditional Balinese compound. These compounds are fascinating! Rooted in Hindu and Buddhist thought, each compound houses several pavilions, a central courtyard, a family shrine, and several different stand-apart rooms such as bedrooms, kitchens, and food storage rooms. These compounds are intergenerational, with everyone from great-great-grandparents to the youngest babies living all in one property. Typically, a woman will move into the compound once she marries and becomes a part of this large extended family.

cycling in bali bike tour through ubud rice terraces
I can’t stand the cuteness!
cycling in bali bike tour rice terraces in ubud
My racing buddy. NB: He won

We kept biking through the village, until we reached some stunning rice terraces. Now, if you do the cycling in Bali tour, these aren’t the terraces you’ve seen photos of on Pinterest: that’s Tegalalang, which this tour doesn’t cover. However, these terraces are completely tourist-free, so you can truly soak up the peace and quiet of the gorgeous Balinese countryside.

If you want those iconic photos of Tegalalang to make your buddies back home drool, you’ll want to take a separate trip for that, either by renting a motorbike for the day or hiring a driver. If you rent a motorbike, don’t be stupid and please make sure to have an appropriate helmet.

Here, though, is what you will get to experience:

MUST DO: Ride a bike through Bali's rice fields!      Take a cycling tour to witness the real Bali!

eco cycling in Ubud

After reaching the rice terraces and taking some obligatory photos, the group splintered into two: those were tuckered out and wanted to go straight to the buffet, and those who wanted to kick their asses and opt for the uphill portion. Raring with energy, I and my travel buddies opted for the latter.

About ten minutes into cycling in Bali heat in the peak of the day, I started to wonder if that was a bad idea. With a sheen of sweat coating me and cooling me, I finally got into a groove, counting in cycles of 4 over and over again to get me over the big hills. After about 45 minutes of an intense series of hills, I was never happier to collapse into a plate of food.

This food, by the way, also happened to be some of the best food I’ve eaten IN MY LIFE. I know the word buffet brings to mind images of subpar, lukewarm food, but STAAAHP. This food was incredible, because Indonesian food is bangin’. (BTW, if you want to take a Indonesian cooking class, Ubud is a great place to do so!) Mee goreng (fried noodles with veggies and shrimp crackers), homemade sambal (chili paste), gado gado (veggies with peanut sauce), opor ayam (coconut chicken), tempeh kecap (marinated tempeh cooked in a sweet soy and ketchup sauce)…. good god, I need to stop before I book a flight to Bali just to eat all the foods. Even better, everything at the buffet was all made in an organic garden in the back of the restaurant!

delicious balinese food after cycling in bali
One of the top 10 meals of my life. And that’s saying something.

You may think this tour would have an insane price tag on it. After all, Bali does conjure up images of luxe honeymoons and outrageous villas, right? Well, there are truly two sides to Bali. While the luxury side does most certainly exist, Bali is also a backpacker’s paradise and it’s quite simple to do Bali on a budget. The cost for all of the eco cycling in Bali tour? $35 if you book in advance, $40 if not. For two buffets, round trip transfers, a coffee and tea tasting, and bike rental, I think it’s more than worth the $35.

Note: I paid for this tour out of pocket. However, this post does contain affiliate links unrelated to the tour mentioned. That means that if you purchase something using one of these links, I will receive a small commission at no added cost to you. No BS – I only recommend accommodations, services, and products I truly believe in.

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Cycling in Bali is one of the best things you can do in Ubud! Explore the rural side of Bali on an awesome, affordable cycling tour

The Affordable Luxury Guide to Ho Chi Minh in 2 Days

Vietnam has a reputation for being one of the most affordable countries in the world to travel. It’s become a bit of a Shangri-La for backpackers, but what I found was that if you stretch your budget just a bit, that’s where you’ll find incredible value. Travelers looking for some affordable luxury will be in heaven in Vietnam’s cosmopolitan capital, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly and often still known as Saigon).

If you’re heading to HCMC (as it’s often abbreviated), get ready for a whirlwind of sights, sounds, and scents. This city is an assault on your senses in the best possible way: flickering neon lights from the surrounding skyscrapers rivaling those of Tokyo, wafts of warm, fragrant smoke from street food stalls, and the constant hum of motorbikes in a city that rarely rests.

The city’s energy is infectious, and it’d take a lifetime to truly explore Ho Chi Minh City to its core. If you’ve set yourself the near-impossible task of seeing the best of Ho Chi Minh in 2 days, here’s a quick guide to do it in style.

Ho Chi Minh in 2 Days: Day One

Start the day with a Vietnamese coffee

Start off your two days in Ho Chi Minh with coffee!

As a self-certified coffee snob, I can safely vouch that Vietnamese coffee is some of the best in the world. It’s always strong, and best over condensed milk or ice (or both!).

My personal favorite way to drink coffee in Vietnam is ca phe sua da (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk). It’s so delicious, thick, and sweet that it’s practically a dessert!

Get acquainted with the city with a vintage Vespa tour

2 days in Ho Chi Minh

If you’re keen on an adrenaline rush, why not swap two feet for two wheels with a ride on a vintage Vespa? You’ll be exploring Ho Chi Minh in the most Vietnamese way possible, as scooters are virtually synonymous with this country.

Riding around the city by scooter is a wonderful way to get a feel for the beautiful chaos that is Ho Chi Minh City. Rather than taking a sedate bus tour, a guided Vespa tour gets your adrenaline flowing as you rapidly discover all the major historical sights and explore the surrounding areas. A few of the sights you’ll likely see include the War Remnants Museum, Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Basilica, Central Post Office, and Jade Emperor Pagoda.

Explore the food scene in Vietnam

Tip for conquering Ho Chi Minh in 2 days -- eat your heart out!

Whether you have the budget for five-star restaurants or street stalls, you’re in for a treat either way. Food is what Vietnam does best – it’s among my favorite cuisines in all the world.

Vietnamese cuisine is all about contrast and vibrant flavor. Fresh herbs feature front and center, whether it’s torn mint leaves in a bowl of bún cha or fresh basil in a piping hot bowl of pho. Sweet and sour nuoc mam (a blend of fish sauce and palm sugar amongst other ingredients) liven up the simplest of rice dishes and fried goodies.

If you’re looking for a fancy meal out, Ho Chi Minh City certainly delivers. Restaurants like Xu offer fantastic value with their tasting menus, where you can try 5 courses for just about $40 USD.

Meanwhile, there’s delicious street food on virtually every street and alley for those who’d rather save their money and eat like a local. The local markets are also well worth a visit for food lovers. The biggest and best of HCMC’s markets is Ben Thanh in District 1, where busy stalls sell delicious Vietnamese fare cooked to order. Just pick stalls that look busy with lots of customers – tourists and locals alike – to ensure food safety. Real foodies may opt to book a cooking class, so you can learn how to use the local ingredients to recreate your favorite dish back home.

Check into a 5* hotel for a 3* price in District 1

Stay in luxury for two days in HCMC

The greatest thing about Vietnam’s affordability is that experiences that would normally be way out of your price range are suddenly rather affordable. For a 5* hotel in Vietnam, you’ll pay about as much as you would for a mid-range room in London or NYC.

If you’re looking for luxury, you’ll find it in District 1, home to the city’s finest hotels, restaurants, and shopping. One of the best hotels in Ho Chi Minh City, the Reverie Saigon, is full of ornate grandeur that will almost transport you to a European palace, with a luxe spa to match.

Vietnam also has a thriving fashion and tailoring scene (Hoi An further north of Ho Chi Minh is especially famous for its affordable, custom-tailored suits and clothing), and District 1 is the center of this scene. Here, you can check out boutiques from up and coming designers who are driving a dynamic fashion scene in HCMC.

Ho Chi Minh in 2 Days: Day Two

Explore villages along the Mekong Delta river

Even if you have just 2 days in Ho Chi Minh, a cruise along the Mekong Delta river is well worth it. You can either go with a tour or charter a private long-tail boat to take you beyond the chaotic capital city into the sleepy riverside villages of south Vietnam.

Depending on what cruise you select, you have the opportunity to stop off on small islands and local villages to experience a more authentic side to daily life in Vietnam, and still be back in time to enjoy the rest of your last afternoon and evening in the city.

Check out some of HCMC’s museums

Ho Chi Minh City has a wealth of amazing museums. The War Remnants Museum is a can’t-miss window into the experience of surviving the Vietnam War. In my opinion, it’s especially important for American travelers to come here and see the war’s history portrayed from the Vietnamese perspective.

Other museums worth visiting at the Southern Women’s Museum and the Fine Art Museum, so choose whatever suits your interest and schedule best.

Catch a traditional Vietnamese performance

If you’re interested in Vietnamese culture, don’t miss the chance to watch a water puppet show at The Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre. I know, seeing a puppet show may seem strange, but I can vouch for these: the performances are artfully done, exquisitely lit, and surprisingly beautiful.

These uniquely traditional puppet shows tell tales from Vietnamese folklore and are performed in a large pool using the water as a stage. You won’t find performances like these anywhere else in the world.

If you’re not into the idea of a puppet show, the Saigon Opera House is another fantastic cultural event space. Home to the HCMC Ballet and Symphony Orchestra, the venue also hosts performances by world-renowned artists – popular shows often sell out, so look in advance and book early if you see something that catches your eye.

Rooftop cocktails at Chill Sky Bar

 

I’m of the belief that the vastness of a city is best appreciated from up high – preferably with a cocktail in hand. There are several rooftop bars in Ho Chi Min City, but I’d recommend Chill Sky Bar for its central location in District 1 and general happy hour.

Cocktails here are definitely more expensive than your 15 cent street bia hoi (fresh beer brewed daily and sold on street corners everywhere), but it’s worth the cost of admission to have such a wonderful view of the city.